‘It’s about maintaining the things we have’

Minnesota State Chancellor says 2024 session will have a big impact on area colleges and universities

MARSHALL — The 2024 Minnesota legislative session is about to begin, and Minnesota State colleges and universities are hoping that it will lead to state bonding dollars to fund maintenance and capital projects.

“It’s about maintaining the things that we already have,” Minnesota State Chancellor Scott Olson said Wednesday. The Minnesota State system currently has a backlog of more than $1.5 billion in deferred maintenance needs, Olson said. Deferred maintenance for the system has grown by 116% since 2013.

Olson said Minnesota has seen “a concerning pattern” develop in higher education funding.

“If you went back 20 years, the higher education sector and Minnesota State in particular, our share of the total bonding bill they would do was 21%. Last year, where we’re at now, was 6%,” Olson said. The decline also true for the amount of investment into the University of Minnesota over the past 20 years, he said.

“The reason that’s happening is because a lot of the bonding money is going to things that aren’t actually state assets,” like municipal projects, Olson said. “The share of the bonding bill that goes to the assets of Minnesotans is diminishing. And we are concerned about that, and I know the university of Minnesota is concerned about that.”

Olson said there were some positive signs going into the 2024 session. Gov. Tim Walz’s list of capital budget recommendations included $81.77 million in bonding for Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement (HEAPR) funding across the Minnesota State system.

“We’re grateful for what the governor came forward with,” Olson said.

However, the governor was recommending bonding for only one of the capital projects on Minnesota State’s list of priorities. The recommendation was for $31.8 million in bonding to renovate classroom and common space on the St. Paul College campus. The project would include the demolition of a 13,000 square-foot building.

Olson said Minnesota State was hoping to raise support for HEAPR funding and capital bonding for projects at Southwest Minnesota State University, and Minnesota West Community and Technical College.

SMSU is requesting $14 million in bonding for the first phase of a renovation project to create new classrooms and labs for a Wellness and Human Performance Center. It’s a project that has made it into Minnesota State’s top 10 capital budget priorities this year.

SMSU is also seeking HEAPR funding for utility and safety updates in the Physical Education building locker rooms.

“The last bonding project SMSU had was in 2008. And we have about $176 million in deferred maintenance, so that’s why we really need these funded. It would be a game-changer for our campus, for sure,” said SMSU President Kumara Jayasuriya.

Minnesota West is requesting $9.67 million in bonding to renovate nursing classroom and lab spaces at its Granite Falls and Worthington campuses, said Minnesota West President Terry Gaalswyk. Gaalswyk said there were also ongoing HEAPR needs across Minnesota West’s five campuses.

“With five campuses across five communities, deferred maintenance is a never-ending question for us,” he said. “Just last week, we had a boiler go out on our Worthington campus in our health and wellness building. Some of our buildings are over 50, 60 years old, and that boiler was less than 25 years old, so you never know exactly when these types of asset preservation needs present within the system.”

Olson said one big question facing this year’s session was whether there would be a spirit of bipartisanship to pass a bonding bill.

“There is a particular challenge with a bonding bill compared to any other kind of bill, and that is it really needs bipartisan support,” he said.

So far, area legislators have shown strong support for bonding projects at southwest Minnesota colleges and universities, Jayasuriya and Gaalswyk said.

Olson and university presidents said higher education was still an asset to the communities and economy of southwest Minnesota – and it was a message they were hoping to get across to state legislators.

“I think if you walked around Marshall and asked people, ‘Is Southwest Minnesota State a good thing for Marshall? Is it providing opportunities in Marshall? Is it creating a workforce for Marshall?’ I have a feeling there would be a whole lot of local support for that institution,” Olson said. The same would be true for Minnesota West’s presence in cities like Granite Falls and Worthington, he said.

Jayasuriya said there was a need for both four-year and two-year colleges in the region. In terms of the workforce, Minnesota was facing shortages of teachers and nurses, as well as welders and diesel mechanics, he said.

Both Jayasuriya and Gaalswyk said having higher educational opportunities in southwest Minnesota helped create opportunities for young people to stay and work. Gaalswyk said a recent study showed high school students who took advantage of PSEO or concurrent college classes were more likely to stay in the region.

“And we know that 80% of our graduates stay, and live and work in the region,” he said. “We know that the investments in these institutions, coupled with our relationships with our high schools, retain talent here in southwest Minnesota.”

Olson said representatives from Minnesota State will be testifying on behalf of capital projects in front of state lawmakers this spring.

“We’re now hoping to build support among Minnesotans for this idea, that these things that Minnesota is invested in, it needs to maintain,” Olson said.


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